Minority scholars treated as second class academics: Still a racial bias in anthropology

In a blog post at AnthroNow, Manissa McCleave Maharawal draws our attention to an important article in the American Anthropologist that was already published in november 2011: Anthropology as White Public Space?

Here, Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson show that there is still a racial bias in American anthropology. Their online survey among anthropologists of color in the US reveals that anthropology has “not done well when it comes to decolonizing their own practices around race”. A racial division of labor within departments, as well as a range of everyday practices recreate white public spaces. Works by minority scholars and their role in theory building are not reflected in the canon.

>> read Manissa McCleave Maharawal’s post Anthropology’s Persistent Race Problem

(Check also some of her articles on AlterNet)

Inspired by her post, I downloaded and read the paper. Here we find several examples for that anthropologists of color (graduate students and faculty) often are treated as second class academics:

In sum, taken-for-granted practices of racially dividing labor mark anthropology departments as white institutional spaces. They include assigning diversity work to faculty of color, while giving it little value for tenure and promotion, and freeing white faculty from responsibility for it. Informal practices that train students of color for a paraprofessional track reinforce long traditions of treating members of subordinated communities as study subjects and native informants rather than as professional colleagues. The message is that minority anthropologists are not full professionals.

Here are some more quotes from the paper:

  • Several respondents experienced being actively sought after, only to discover that their most valued attribute was their appearance—so that their university or department could have the look of diversity. One who was so courted discovered that her appointment was tied “to a diversity-related administrative function with little budget or power.”

  • Those who are held institutionally responsible for the work of creating a more racially diverse faculty and student body are disproportionately minority faculty. As respondents described the amount of time they spent on this work and the consensus of their colleagues that it was their job, we came to think of it as “diversity duty.” –

  • A racial division of expectations also applies to teaching and advising. Departments often value faculty of color for their ability to teach students of color but not necessarily white students.

  • Students and faculty of color are often hypervisible as tokens of institutional political correctness but invisible as scholars in their work settings. More specific were reports of white faculty who treated students of color as research assistants and cultural brokers rather than scholars-in-training.

  • An important conceptual foundation of a secondary track for anthropologists of color is a common assumption that outsider status is the desired norm for anthropological research. This marks insider researchers negatively, most notably marking their knowledge as “folk” or “local” but not“scholarly . ”

  • Some respondents reported being “valued for my language and cultural insight, not for my intellect”. (…) Another [respondent] described a professor who “wished me to accompany him to Africa to be his go-between with the natives although this would have yielded no advantage to me and would greatly have delayed my ability to complete my program of study… . He wished to exploit me for his gain because of my minority ethnic status.”

  • (M)any respondents were told that the subject matter of their work, especially studies of U.S. communities of color and patterns of racism, do not belong in anthropology. Several were encouraged to leaveanthropology and move to ethnic studies.

  • Many departments remain attitudinally white in ownership and decision making about the discipline, undermining what Daryl Smith (2009) calls institutional “mattering and belonging . ” This happens through the continuing pattern of marginalizing the work and theoretical perspectives generated by scholars of color, as well as by seeing proper anthropology and ethnic studies as mutually exclusive. Both practices constitute anthropologists of color as less than full anthropologists. White ownership also happens when a predominantly white department collectively enacts mainstream U.S. forms of race avoidance in dealing with racial issues in departmental practice.

  • Respondents to our survey encountered resistance similar to that reported in 1973 to scholars of color actively shaping the directions of anthropological thought—and, notably , they mentioned hostility toward critical theoretical perspectives on taken-for-granted aspects of mainstream culture. One faculty respondent reflected, “Neither myself nor my grad school peers of color expected the extreme resistance for paradigm changes … we have all been pushed out of these colleges simply because of this resistance.”

  • Another [respondent] implicated class bias: “ Tenure requires having no life but [an] academic [one] and a class background that gives you a level of financial support to work.” (…) Class and race bias interact. Students of color are disproportionately from working-class backgrounds, and institutional blindness to the concomitants of class works against them.

  • Perhaps the biggest attitudinal barrier to ethnic diversification is a belief that being an anthropologist inoculates one against racism (as well as other varieties of social stereotyping). Many respondents urged developing a departmental discourse about race that includes reflexivity. Intersectional thinking is at the heart of reflexivity: for example, recognizing that not all minorities are male (or straight or working class) nor are all women white (or straight or middle class) opens up possibilities for making racial diversity the cutting edge of broader diversification. The lesson is to make critical discourses part of departmental discourse. (…) (D)epartments must hold white faculty equally responsible for improving racial diversity for it to be highly valued.

  • (T)he heart of our conclusion is embarrassingly obvious. It is this: the defamiliarizing insights and analyses generated from vantage points developed by anthropologists of color are better tools for diversifying departmental organization and culture (among other things) than hegemonic ones, and anthropology departments should embrace them instead of marginalizing them. Alternatively put, anthropology has made its mark on understanding cultures by taking seriously the points of view of those it studies. We suggest it needs to take seriously the points of view of those who are internal others to better understand and diversify itself as well as enhance its theoretical robustness.

Source: Brodkin, K, S Morgen and J Hutchinson (2011) Anthropology as White Public Space? (behind paywall, only available for subscribers)

Some of their findings are also reflected in an ethnography of American anthropology that I blogged about nearly two years ago: Reversed Gaze. An African Ethnography of American Anthropology by Mwenda Ntarangwi - see my post How racist is American anthropology?. I see now that I announced a second post about this book, but it never appeared, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to do that soon!

See also a post from 2005: How can we create a more plural anthropological community? and a more recent post The dubious behaviour of Western researchers sightseeing the “Arab Spring”

There has been some discussion on these issues (including the paper) in a post by Jason Antrosio at Savage Minds: Taking Anthropology, Introduction


Comment from: Charles Menzies [Visitor]
Charles Menzies

This kind of treatment also exists in the publications of the AES (American Ethnological Society) where technical arguments about writing style are used to reject (or send into a never ending multi-year tailspin of revisions) papers that challenge racial assumptions of good liberal anthropology.

Articles about race tinged in excotizing tones are acceptable. Papers that challenge and confront meet with a strange set of critical comments that have included asking if the author was really part of the racial group or just pretend, suggesting that by focusing upon the way that anthropology uses indigenous communities as data is a form of reverse racism, etc, etc.

It’s easier to try and pass or to be a well behaved token rep it seems then to be honest.

2012-10-28 @ 23:22
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for the comment. I’ve edited the AES part (link and explanation).

I soppose you’ll find that many places, and not only in the US. I wonder if there are sings of change? It seems not - according the paper. Is something done against these racist practices in anthropology? Has this paper been followed up?

2012-10-28 @ 23:44
Comment from: Chris Fung [Visitor]
Chris Fung

Thanks so much for this. This is very important work and needs much wider recognition from those in power.

2014-11-09 @ 08:49

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